Valerie S. Ashby, Ph.D., Dean of Trinity College

Advancing Arts & Sciences: Teaching and Learning in the Classroom

January 31, 2018

Dear Colleagues:

After serving in the deanship for two and a half years, I write with my thoughts about advancing the Arts & Sciences – and Duke – to the next level of excellence.  As a young institution, Duke prides itself on being flexible and nimble, with “outrageous ambitions,” as Terry Sanford would say.  We are not self-satisfied, and we are constantly moving forward in competition with our best selves.

Moreover, we have made tremendous, real strides.  We now select the best students from across the country (over 35,000 applied this year, from whom 1700 were selected).  With help from the Capital Campaign, we have dramatically increased access.  As a result, our faculty and students are more diverse than ever, and we have increased our first-generation and international students.  We have recruited, retained, and developed an outstanding faculty cadre of scholar-teachers.  We have developed a broad array of programs, such as Focus, DukeImmerse, Undergraduate Research, Entrepreneurship, and Study Abroad.  Our institutional leadership is healthy, strong, and aligned with our priority for excellence in undergraduate education.

So now, the time is right to focus on our core mission: teaching and learning in the classroom.  What is our aspirational vision for undergraduate education?  What is the student experience with the introduction to your field, which often occurs in the first and second years?  How do our introductory courses in your discipline contribute to what we want a Duke student to become?  If these courses are the only ones that a student takes in your field, is it the experience that you would want them to have?  How can faculty play a stronger role in student success?  How can departments and programs create educational pathways for students so that their course of study helps them achieve their personal life goals?

In thinking about these questions, I believe there is much we can do now.  While we have discontinued our broad curricular overhaul for the present, I have asked the A&S chairs to focus with their faculty on how best to engage our undergraduate students in a much more intentional way.  If a student takes an introductory or service course in your discipline, does it engage that student so that he or she sees its importance and relevance?  Does such a course stimulate a student intellectually so that he or she deepens and broadens intellectual capacities?  Does that course capture the student’s imagination so that if that he or she takes only one course in that discipline, it is personally interesting, challenging, and meaningful?

These are just the sorts of questions and discussions we hope to have over the spring semester.  Accordingly, I have asked each chair to lead his or her faculty in thinking how we can be our best selves.  In this process, we do not seek to add courses but to change our courses or replace a course with a newer version of it, if need be.  Opportunities for support for this type of course enhancement abound with new pedagogies, programs for faculty development, and new technologies.

I hope that the Arts & Sciences faculty will have broad and deep conversations over the course of the spring semester, and by April, each department and program will have a tangible plan to strengthen the experiences of our undergraduates so that they make stronger connections between faculty and students, engage students more robustly, and increase both faculty and student engagement and satisfaction.

I know that Duke leads undergraduate educational institutions in many ways.  I trust that this focus on the transition to the academy and a thriving undergraduate education will be a signature one of them.


Valerie S. Ashby
Dean of Trinity College